A Single Breath

A Novel

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About The Book

From the celebrated author of Swimming at Night, a powerful and moving saga of one woman’s struggle to overcome her husband’s death and uncover his dark, mysterious past.

A young widow discovers her husband was not who he claimed to be—and finds herself falling in love with the wrong man.

Eva has only been married for eight months when her husband, Jackson, is swept to his death while fishing. Weighed down by confusion and sorrow, Eva decides to take leave of her midwifery practice and visit Jackson’s estranged family with the hope of grieving together.

Instead, she discovers that the man she loved so deeply is not the man she thought she knew. Jackson’s father and brother reveal a dark past, exposing the lies her marriage was built upon. As Eva struggles to come to terms with the depth of Jackson’s deception, she must also confront her growing attraction to Jackson’s brother, Saul, who offers her intimacy, passion, and answers to her most troubling questions.

Will Eva be able to move forward, or will she be caught up in a romance with Saul, haunted by her husband’s past? Threading together beautiful, wild settings and suspenseful twists, A Single Breath is a gripping tale of secrets, betrayals, and new beginnings.

Excerpt

A Single Breath 1


As she leaves the shelter of the headland, the full force of the wind hits Eva. Her hair whips back from her face and she hugs the flask of coffee tight to her chest. Clouds of sand gust along the shoreline, sending a tangled knot of fishing line pinwheeling along the beach.

A woman passes in the other direction, her purple coat flattened to her back by the wind. The fur-trimmed hood is pulled tight to her face, making Eva wish she’d thought to wear a hat. She’d forgotten how raw the weather is on the coast; in London it is muted by buildings and watched from behind windows.

She and Jackson had driven to Dorset last night for her mother’s birthday. It was a rush to get out of the city; Eva had been delayed at the hospital trying to turn a breeched baby, but still managed to wrap her mother’s present and clear the sink of their breakfast things before Jackson barreled in late and exhausted from a meeting that had run over. The whole week had been like that: grabbing meals at different times, tension from work stalking them home, falling into bed too late and too shattered to talk. She’s pleased to have this weekend just to slow down.

Ahead, the rocks where Jackson will be fishing come into focus. Huge somber boulders stretch right out into the sea. She wonders if he’s caught anything yet. It wasn’t long past dawn when she’d felt the give of the bed as Jackson slipped out from under the covers. She’d heard him stepping into his jeans, pulling on a sweater, and zipping up his coat. He’d leaned over the bed and pressed a kiss on her bare shoulder. Her eyes had opened just enough to see him disappear through the doorway, a red woolen hat pulled down over his ears.

Just beyond the rocks she sees a flash of a boat. It disappears momentarily into a trough and she thinks the conditions are too rough to be out on the water today. She squints against the wind and sees it rise again on the crest of a wave: an orange lifeboat. She wonders whether there’s been an accident, and as soon as she has this thought, a slow trickle of unease seeps through her body.

In her childhood summers when her father was still alive, they would come to this beach every morning to swim together, her father making lunging rotations with his long, bony arms in a backstroke. She had loved those swims when the water was calm and the early sun glanced off the surface. But today the sea is something darker, forbidding.

She scans the rocks for Jackson, eyes watering in the wind. He must be here; it’s the spot he always fishes when they’re visiting her mother. But now all that breaks the gray wash of sea and sky is the lifeboat. Even as she tells herself that the lifeboat could be on a training mission, her knees are bending, carrying her forward into a run.

The flask bounces against her hip and her boots flick up sand. Her breath comes in warm, quick clouds and she feels restricted by the layers of her clothes—her jeans unyielding against her knees, her coat buttons tight against her breastbone.

When she reaches the base of the rocky outcrop, she finds a dozen or so people gathered there. Her gaze moves over them and then travels up the length of the rocks, where waves charge, tossing white water high into the bruised sky. The air is heavy with the smell of salt.

She can’t see Jackson.

Eva hurries toward a man zipped into a waxed jacket, his steel-gray eyebrows ruffled by the wind. “Why’s the lifeboat out?” she asks, trying to keep the panic from her voice.

“Someone was swept off the rocks.”

Her heart lurches. “Who?”

“A fisherman, they think.”

For a moment she has a feeling of relief because she knows her husband is not a fisherman: he’s a thirty-year-old brand marketer for a drinks company. But then the man is saying, “Young, apparently. But maybe he’ll stand more of a chance against the cold.”

Eva feels all the air leave her lungs as if someone has grabbed her hard around the ribs. She drops the flask and yanks her cell from her pocket, ripping off her gloves to dial. Her fingers are clumsy with the cold but she turns her back to the wind and keys in Jackson’s number.

Pressing the phone to her ear, she paces on the spot waiting for him to pick up.

“Hi, this is Jackson,” his voicemail says, and her heart stalls.

Dropping the phone into her pocket, she stumbles toward the rocks. A wide red sign reads DANGER, KEEP OFF. Her scarf flies behind her as she clambers over the wet boulders, the cry of wind filling her ears. Her breath is ragged, and spiked thoughts pierce at her, making her mind whirl. She tells herself to focus only on where she is putting each foot, placing one carefully in front of the other.

Ahead something colorful catches her attention. She picks her way over barnacle-lined rocks until she is close enough to see it.

A green plastic tackle box lies open, wedged between two rocks. She recognizes it instantly: she’d bought it for Jackson last Christmas to house the lures and weights that were gradually filling up his bedside drawer. Now salt water fills the trays, so that two bright blue lures float inside like dead fish.

There is a loud, shattering boom as a wave smashes into the jetty. Icy spray slashes the side of Eva’s face and she drops to her knees, clinging to the rock with numbed fingers.

“Hey!” someone shouts. “Get back!”

But she cannot move, cannot turn. She is frozen, fear leaden in her stomach. Her face smarts with the cold and the back of her head is wet. A slow trickle of water seeps beneath her scarf.

Seconds later, she feels the pressure of a hand on her shoulder. A policeman is standing over her, taking her by the arm, encouraging her to her feet. “It’s not safe,” he shouts above the wind.

She shakes him off. “My husband!” she cries, her words coming out in gusts. “He was fishing! Right here!”

The policeman stares down at her. There is a patch of dark stubble on his jawline, no larger than a thumbprint, which he must have missed when shaving this morning. Something like fear pricks his features as he says, “Okay. Okay. Let’s get onto the beach.”

He grips her arm, helping her stand. Her legs tremble as they move slowly over the wet rocks, him glancing over his shoulder watching for waves.

When they reach the sand, he turns to her. “Your husband was fishing here this morning?”

She nods. “His tackle box—it’s on the rocks.”

The policeman looks at her for a long moment without blinking. “We had a report earlier that a man fishing was swept in.”

Her voice is small: “Was it him?”

“We can’t be sure yet.” He pauses. “But it sounds like it’s possible, yes.”

Saliva fills her mouth and she twists away. The gray-green sea swills with current as she searches it for Jackson. She swallows. “How long ago?”

“About twenty minutes. A couple reported it.”

She turns, following his gaze toward a middle-aged man and woman in dark blue parkas, a golden retriever at their feet. “Was it them? Did they see him?”

The moment he nods, Eva staggers past him.

The dog’s tail wags frantically as she approaches. “You saw my husband! He was fishing!”

“Your husband?” the woman says, distress clouding her narrow face. “We saw him, yes. I’m sorry—”

“What happened?”

The woman twists her scarf between her fingers as she says, “We’d seen him fishing when we walked past earlier.” She glances at her husband. “You said it looked dangerous with those waves, didn’t you?”

He nods. “When we turned to walk back, we saw he’d been swept in. He was in the water.”

“We called the coast guard,” the woman adds. “We tried to keep sight of him till they arrived . . . but . . . but we lost him.”

They must be mistaken, Eva thinks. It couldn’t be Jackson. “The man you saw—what was he wearing?”

“Wearing?” the woman repeats. “Dark clothes, I think. And a hat,” she says, touching the back of her head. “A red hat.”



SOMETIME LATER, EVA’S MOTHER arrives. She drapes a blanket over Eva’s shoulders and teases a fleecy hat over her short hair while asking questions in a low voice: How long has he been in the water? What has the coast guard said?

Eva watches the lifeboat making a search pattern, as if drawing a square in the water and then working outward so the square gets larger and larger until at some point the lifeboat is so far away she wonders if it is even possible Jackson could have swum that far.

She wants to focus on anything but the freezing grip of the sea, so she cushions herself with the warmer memory of Jackson surprising her last month when he’d turned up at the hospital after one of her late shifts holding a bag containing her favorite dress and a pair of gold heels. He’d told her to get changed because he was taking her out.

She’d slipped into the locker room, her heart skipping with excitement, and swapped her uniform for the black silk dress he’d chosen. She’d dabbed on some lipstick and smoothed back her dark hair, and the other midwives whistled and cooed as she came out, giving a little twirl.

Jackson had taken her to a blues bar in north London where the room was lit by candles and the rhythm of the double bass rocked through her chest. She’d leaned her head against Jackson’s shoulder, feeling the atmosphere soak through her, washing away the strains of the day. They drank cocktails they couldn’t afford, and she danced in high heels that gave her blisters, but she hadn’t minded: she loved Jackson for his knack of taking a normal day and carving something beautiful from it.

The loud drone of the coast guard helicopter cuts through Eva’s thoughts. The sea beneath quivers and trembles. The white and red colors look bright, optimistic almost, against the darkening clouds, and a ripple of anticipation spreads through the growing crowd.

The policeman stands alone rubbing his palms together to keep warm. Sometimes his radio crackles and he lifts it to his mouth. Eva glances over occasionally, studying him, watching for a sign to tell her how this day will end.

Mostly they wait in silence, listening to the waves crashing at sea, frothing white water bowling into the rocks. Her mother keeps hold of her hand and every now and then she says beneath her breath, “Come on, Jackson. Come on.”



WHEN THE LAST BIT of daylight is fading, Eva hears crackling from the policeman’s radio. She turns and watches as he lifts it toward his mouth and speaks into it. He looks out over the water and nods once, solemnly. Then the radio is lowered.

He begins moving toward Eva. She shakes her head, thinking, Do not say it!

“I’m afraid the coast guard’s calling off the search.”

Her gloved fingers clutch her scarf. “They can’t!”

“The boat’s almost out of fuel and the helicopter’s lost the light. I’m sorry.”

“He’s still out there!”

“The coast guard has made the decision.”

“But he won’t survive the night.”

The policeman’s gaze leaves her and settles on the sand at their feet.

She feels her mother’s hand around her waist, holding onto her, squeezing so tightly it’s as if she’s trying to absorb Eva’s pain.

“He’s out there,” Eva says finally. She pulls away and staggers down the beach, where the faint lights of the quay glow in the distance. She hears her mother calling after her, but she will not look back. She knows exactly where she needs to go.

Jackson is her husband and she will not give up on him.



THE FISHERMAN IS JUST stepping onto the quay when Eva approaches him. “Is this your boat?”

“Yeah,” he says suspiciously.

She snatches a breath. “I need you to take me out in it. I’ll pay.”

“Lady, this boat isn’t going anywhere—”

“My husband was swept from the rocks this morning,” she says.

“Your husband? Christ! I heard about it over the radio.”

She moves right past him, climbing into the boat as if she’s about to commandeer it.

“Hey, listen—”

“You understand currents? Tides?” she says, trying to keep her voice level and focus only on the practical details.

“Sure, but I can’t—”

“Please,” she says, swinging around to face him, her composure cracking. “You have to help me!”

Once they reach the open water, the boat pitches and rolls with the waves. Eva grips the side, her fingers aching from the cold. She won’t let herself think about this because if she admits that her feet are numb and that the temperature has dropped so low that she can’t stop shivering, then she’ll also have to admit that Jackson could not survive this.

The rocky outcrop looms like low-hanging fog. When they near it, the fisherman cuts the engine. He shouts above the wind, “We’ll drift with the current now.”

He moves toward her holding a yellow oilskin. “Here. Wear this over the life jacket.”

The material is rough and cold, the long sleeves scratching the chapped skin on the undersides of her wrists where her gloves end. She glances down and sees a thick smear of blood across the breast of the jacket.

“Just fish blood,” he says, following her gaze.

Eva glances around the boat deck, where lobster pots and dark heavy nets laced with seaweed are stacked. There are lights on the boat, but they’re not nearly bright enough. “Have you got a flashlight?”

“Sure.” He lifts the lid of the wooden bench and pulls out a flashlight with a glass face as big as a dinner plate.

He passes it to Eva, who holds it in both hands to support the weight. She flicks the switch and points it at the black water. The beam is dazzling and she blinks several times until her eyes become accustomed to it.

He fetches a second, smaller flashlight and begins searching the water beside her as they drift. Dark waves swim in and out of the beam like bodies rearing up, and then recede again.

“Your husband fish a lot?”

Husband. The word still sounded fresh and sweet. They had been married for just under ten months and the sight of his wedding band still made her catch her breath with happiness. “We live in London—so he doesn’t fish as much as he’d like. He used to as a boy. He’s from Tasmania.”

“Where’s that?”

She forgets that some people know little about Tasmania. “It’s an island off southeast Australia. Almost opposite Melbourne. It’s an Australian state.”

As she looks down at the inky sea, Eva’s thoughts drift back through the day. She pictures Jackson trudging up the beach with his fishing gear. Would his head have been fuzzy from drinking the night before? Did he walk along the shore and think of her still snug in bed, or remember their lovemaking last night? Was there any point when he’d considered turning around and stealing back into the warmth next to her beneath the duvet?

She imagines him on the rocks threading fishing lures onto the line with numb fingers, then setting out the catch bucket. She imagines that first cast, the smooth flick of the rod. The surf’s good for the fish, livens them up, he’d told her before.

He knew his fish. His father had run a cray boat for a decade, and Jackson studied marine biology. Living in London as they did, there wasn’t much call for marine biologists, but he said he got his fix of the coast whenever they visited her mother. In Tasmania, he owned an old sea kayak and would paddle through empty bays and inlets with a fishing rod hooked at the back of the kayak. She loved his stories of cruising beneath mountains and alongside wild coastline, catching fish to cook up on an open fire.

There is a loud splash by the boat’s side and Eva gasps.

The flashlight has slipped from her fingers, an eerie yellow glow falling through the dark water. “No! No . . .”

She wants to reach down, scoop her hands through the sea and save it, but the light flickers as it sinks, and then goes out.

“I’m sorry! I thought I had it,” she says, grasping the sides of the boat, leaning right over. “I’ve lost it. I can’t see anything now. I’m sorry . . . I . . .”

“No matter,” the fisherman says gently.

She hugs her arms tight to her chest. Her lips sting with the wind chill as she stares out into the endless darkness. “How cold is it?” she asks quietly. “The sea?”

He sucks in his breath. “I’d say it’s about eight or nine degrees at the moment.”

“How long could someone survive in it for?”

“Hard to say.” He pauses. “But I’d think a couple of hours at best.”

There’s silence save for the creak of the boat and the slap of waves against the hull.

He’s dead, she thinks. My husband is dead.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for A Single Breath includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lucy Clarke. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

When Eva’s husband, Jackson, dies in a fishing accident after less than ten months of marriage, she travels to his native Tasmania, hoping to find comfort and closure by visiting his estranged family. What she discovers, however, is that her husband was not the man she thought he was. As she struggles to come to terms with Jackson’s deception, she finds herself more and more drawn to his brother, Saul, who offers her intimacy, passion, and a window into her husband’s past. When a shocking secret about Jackson comes to light, Eva must find a way to rediscover her own truths and forge a new future.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Eva suffers greatly in the first half of the novel. She’s devastated by Jackson’s death and then by the miscarriage of their baby, but she also deals with aching loneliness and feeling like she’s lost her identity. Why do you think she repeatedly pushes away her family and Callie to be in Tasmania alone? Do you think it was the right decision for her?
 
2. When they first meet, Saul is distant toward Eva, yet over time they develop a close relationship. Despite his desire to tell Eva the truth about Jackson, he does not, and Eva only finds out accidentally. How do you think Eva should have found out? What would you have done if you were Saul?
 
3. As the backstory of Jackson and Eva’s relationship emerges, it becomes clear that Eva overlooked a few red flags about her husband: the occasional white lie, his irresponsible spending habits, and the evening she found him crying in the shower. Do you think Eva was too naïve about Jackson? Would you have questioned any of these incidents?
 
4. Do you find Jackson at all sympathetic? What do you make of his decision to hide his first marriage from Eva? Do you think his good intentions and genuine love for Eva excuse his behavior in any way?
 
5. Jackson tells Eva that meeting her gave him the opportunity to start over: “So many nights I’d lie awake beside you and wonder, if I’d told you the truth from the start, would you still have fallen in love with me? A married bartender from Tasmania who’d committed manslaughter” (328). Do you think Eva would have felt the same way about Jackson had she known the truth?
 
6. Discuss how Jeanette and Jackson’s decision to cover up the truth about the bush fire impacts the rest of their lives, shaping their relationship and spawning a series of other lies that spin out of their control. Do you blame one more than the other for the terrible repercussions of this tragic event?
 
7. Eva is initially ashamed to tell Callie that she might have feelings for Saul: “She can see by Callie’s expression that she is thinking the exact same thing as Eva: But he’s Jackson’s brother” (160). Were you ever opposed to Saul and Eva’s relationship? Is there a moment in the book that changed your initial opinion?
 
8. On p. 336, Eva wonders, “Had she fallen in love with Jackson because he was borrowing the details of Saul’s life, or had she fallen for Saul because he was an extension of Jackson?” What do you think attracts Eva to Saul? Would she have fallen for Saul if she hadn’t known Jackson first?
 
9. Both Eva’s mother and Saul and Jackson’s father have endured terrible losses in the past, and their grief has shaped their relationships with their children. Compare and contrast how Eva, Saul, and Jackson cope with the emotional fragility of their respective parents. Do you think it is justifiable to lie to your loved ones if you believe it will spare them from suffering?
 
10. Ultimately, Saul forgives Jackson for his mistakes, but he never wants to see him again. What do think about this decision? Do you think Saul and Jackson will ever fully reconcile?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Lucy Clarke indicates in the Author’s Note that Bruny Island was her inspiration behind the fictional setting of Wattleboon. Research Bruny Island with your book club. Does it look the same as you imagined? Why or why not?
 
2. Eva finds solace in learning how to free-dive. Have each member of your book club discuss their favorite way to de-stress and unwind. How do these activities make you feel? Why do you think you are drawn to your particular passion?
 
3. If you enjoyed A Single Breath, read Lucy Clarke’s previous novel, Swimming at Night, for your next book club meeting. Discuss the similarities and differences between the two novels.
 
4. Learn more about Lucy Clarke at www.lucy-clarke.com or follow her on Twitter @LucyClarkeBooks.   
 

A Conversation with Lucy Clarke 

Where did the inspiration for A Single Breath come from?  

The idea came from two very separate threads. In 2011, I visited Tasmania for the first time and fell in love with its wild beauty and its remote shacks. Later on that year, I heard about a friend-of-a-friend who was leading a double life in order to hide a huge secret from their family. I was intrigued by the idea of the unknowability of those closest to us and thought how devastating it would be to find out the truth only when that person had gone. These two threads began to weave together, stitching themselves into the beginning of a story.

In the novel, Saul shares his passion for free-diving with Eva. Do you free-dive?  

I learned to scuba dive in Tasmania and had a fantastic time swimming alongside sea dragons, draughtboard sharks, and huge rays, but I found the dive tanks and thick winter wetsuits very heavy and restrictive, so I was excited to try free-diving instead. However, it quickly became apparent that I have the lung capacity of an aging hamster, so my free-diving career never really took off! Luckily my husband free-dives and spearfishes and is very patient when answering the barrage of questions I fire off when he returns to shore.

Secrets play a large role in A Single Breath. Under what circumstances is keeping a secret necessary?  

There is something so irresistible about secrets. The moment I hear someone whisper, “I’ve got a secret,” my ears prick up. I’m sure that many people keep the odd secret in order to protect someone they care about, and most of these will be harmless enough. But then there are those darker secrets, the ones that are tightly wrapped with lies and presented as truth. Those are the dangerous ones—and also the ones that are wonderfully exciting to explore in fiction!

What’s next for Jackson, Saul, and Eva? Do you imagine a future for them beyond the ending of the book?  

It is not an easy story with easy answers. I think that Eva and Saul have a tricky path ahead of them. They will have to negotiate many issues, such as: Will their friends and families accept their relationship? Will they choose to make their home in Tasmania or England? Will they one day regret not allowing Jackson back into their lives? For my part, I like to believe that Saul and Eva’s love for each other is strong and deep enough to survive the challenges that await them.

Jackson tells us that a shack is a bolt-hole, “a place to disappear to when you’re craving some space, some wilderness” (p. 73). Do you have a bolt-hole?  

Yes, I do! My bolt-hole is actually a beach hut on the south coast of England, where I do much of my writing. I love being near the water when I write, and I also love that feeling of space and quiet: no emails, no phone calls, just the sea and my notebook. Heaven!

According to your author bio, you and your husband spend your winters traveling. How does travel inform and inspire your writing?  

There is something about slinging a few belongings into a bag and heading off on a plane, train, or ferry that gives me the most incredible sense of freedom. The break from routine, the stepping out of one’s ordinary world and into another, is surely good for the soul. (At least, it feels very good to my soul!) What I see, hear, smell, and taste while traveling certainly inspires my writing, but it is also the very fact of being away that I find interesting in terms of fiction. I’m intrigued to see how characters behave outside the usual parameters of their daily lives. Routine can be limiting, so I like to explore what happens when a character is taken out of their comfort zone and dislocated from their family and friends. What then?

How was the process of writing A Single Breath different—if at all—from writing your debut novel, Swimming at Night?  

The process was very similar in that both novels started as a simple idea, which I then drafted and redrafted, layering it into a story. The main difference was that I was running a business when I was writing Swimming at Night, so it took me much longer to complete the novel. With A Single Breath, I was able to enjoy the luxury of being a full-time novelist, so I could completely immerse myself in the story for long stretches of time.

About The Author

Photograph by James Bowden

Lucy Clarke is the author of Swimming at Night and A Single Breath. She and her husband, a professional windsurfer, spend their winters traveling and their summers at their home on the south coast of England. Visit Lucy-Clarke.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (April 8, 2014)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476750156

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Raves and Reviews

“Brilliant. . . the characters and locations come alive.”

– The Oklahoman

“The plot twists are good—too good to spoil—and there is just enough of Tasmania’s rough wildness to transport the reader. . . . Clarke weaves secrets and betrayals and the inner journey of a quiet, appealing Everywoman.”

– Booklist

“An intensely emotional story of love, loss and deception . . . Clarke skillfully envelops readers in a delicate, romantic story tinged with intrigue and set in a breathtakingly exotic locale.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“A satisfying exploration of two sisters’ relationship, cleverly put together and written in a way that draws the reader along.”

– Free-Lance Star

“In the same vein as Rosamund Lupton’s Sister, Clarke takes the reader on an exciting and mysterious trail. . . . [She] does a nice job of creating characters who make us care about them and situations that are exciting and believable. A great read for fans of smart contemporary women’s fiction as well as thriller and mystery readers.”

– Library Journal (starred review)

"Alternating chapters juxtaposing the two sisters’ lives engage readers from the start in Clarke’s accomplished debut."

– Booklist

“A tender and intricate meditation on sisterhood and family, Swimming at Night is an accomplished debut. With a deft hand, Lucy Clarke weaves a deep and compelling story that is as much about what binds us together as it is about what tears us apart. Perfectly capturing the impossibly complicated love of siblings, this is a rich and moving story that lingers long after the book is closed.”

– Lisa Unger, author of Heartbroken and Beautiful Lies

Swimming at Night reaches deep, exploring sibling relationships, love, friendship, identity, and the willingness to put it all on the line in order to learn the truth. I loved my own journey with these two sisters and the haunting landscape of their travels!”

– Ellen Sussman, author of French Lessons and The Paradise Guest House

"I could not put down Lucy Clarke's engaging debut, Swimming at Night. As Katie searched for the truth about her sister's death, I savored being an armchair traveler to seaside locales around the world."

– Amanda Eyre Ward, author of Close Your Eyes and How to Be Lost

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